Pandemic: 16 million indigenous people in absolute vulnerability

By: Zósimo Camacho

Hunger, chronic malnutrition and precarious medical infrastructure are the constant in the geographies of the Native peoples. They don’t have clear information about the arrival of the Covid-19 disease. The greatest ravages of the pandemic and economic crisis could occur on the indigenous horizon.

La Montaña of Guerrero is the most impoverished region of the country and of the Continent. It is purely indigenous, the majority monolingual. The pandemic is coming to 550,000 Na’saavi, Me’phaa and Nahuas of 19 municipalities. There is only one second-level hospital with 30 beds in the entire region –already saturated with women in labor and patients with chronic degenerative diseases and three mechanical ventilators, of which only one works.

That’s the hospital “artillery” with which La Montaña awaits the passage of the Covid-19 pandemic, caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the world’s greatest health emergency in more than 100 years.

“A giant wave is coming and our health system is dismantled, obsolete, without sufficient medical personnel,” warns the anthropologist Abel Barrera Hernández from Tlapa de Comonfort, the heart of La Montaña, the only city of the region that has 70,000 inhabitants.

Poor among the poor, the panorama is similar in the majority of the country’s indigenous geographies, which according to estimates of the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples (INPI, its initials in Spanish) number 16 million people. In remote locations there is not even an awareness of what will come to them in the next weeks and months. And, there are no informational messages for them in their language.

“In this abyss of inequality in our country, we are in the basement of misery,” points out Barrera Hernández, Director of the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center of La Montaña. The pandemic comes to complicate “a labyrinth where it seems that there is no way out, there is no way of solving the problem of hunger.”

Carlos González, a Nahua councilor of the Indigenous Government Council (CIG) and a member of the Coordination Commission of the National Indigenous Congress (CNI), agrees: “Indigenous peoples are the most vulnerable in terms of clinical hospital infrastructure and in terms of medical care in general. There is a lot of malnutrition and many lacks.”

The organized indigenous response

 A lawyer specializing in agrarian law, González says that the threat of the Covid-19 disease has activated alerts among the indigenous peoples of the CNI since it always hits the elderly more severely.

“In [Mexican] society, but markedly in the indigenous peoples, the elderly play a fundamental role, vital for the survival of the communities and their reproduction. It’s a very serious concern,” he explains.

That’s why, for example, the Wirrárika (or Huichol) people of San Andrés Cohamiata, Tatei Kie, decided to suspend the Holy Week ritual, in other words, the most important celebrations of the community’s annual cycle.

For its part, the Yaqui tribe considers not canceling the ritual –also fundamental to its culture– but it did close its territory and not permit the entry of “yoris” (mestizos) into their communities. The same measure is being applied now in some other indigenous geographies like those on the Isthmus and the Central Valleys of Oaxaca, and in some Maya communities of Yucatan.

Another case that stands out is that of the Guerrero communities of the Indigenous and Popular Council of Guerrero-Emiliano Zapata (Cipog-EZ), of the People’s National Liberation Front (FNLP, its initials in Spanish) and of the Campesino Organization of the Southern Sierra (OCSS), which have jointly ordered an external withdrawal and an internal deployment to confront the pandemic and take control of the territory.

We’re talking about hundreds of Na’saavi (or Mixteca), Me’phaa (or Tlapaneca), Ñamnkue (or Amuzga), Nahua, Afro-Mexican and Mestizo communities that declare alerts and announce that they won’t give respite to the opportunists who want to take advantage of the emergency.

In a document issued jointly, the three organizations acquit themselves as members of the CNI and of the CIG and denounce “the lack of a health budget” in the Montaña, Costa Chica, Costa Grande and Tierra Caliente regions.

For Carlos González, with all the poverty and dispossession, the organized indigenous communities in rebellion will be able to generate some kind of defense in their geographies, thanks to their own community life.

The response capacity will be different according to the degree of organization, the topography and the social context of the region where the communities are located. For example, it will not be the same in the Sierra Tarahumara as in the Zapatista Cañadas.

Some communities will be able to organize so that the contagion is slow and will even be able to face the economic crisis with their own means and resources.

“There are communities that resist in very difficult, vey precarious conditions in their regions because they have been displaced by urban and industrial development, as well as pollution. And there are other communities, regions, where there is still a good number of means and there is much greater harmony with Mother Earth,” Carlos González explains.

Therefore, the CNI predicts that the worst situation for indigenous people will, paradoxically, take place in the cities, where there are migrants in precarious jobs and without any type of support. Far from their community, indigenous people are more vulnerable.

That is the case of the Native Ñäñho (or Otomí) community of Santiago Mexquititlán, Querétaro, which is located in Mexico City. They have already prohibited it from selling in the streets and it has no access to food, water or a place to spend the night. The CNI is carrying out a collection to support these families.

The activist and advisor of the community, Diego García, points out that there are 130 Otomí families who are in precarious conditions in the capital of the Republic. This situation worsened after the 2017 earthquake, when they had to vacate the buildings that they were occupying. For more than 18 months, these families spent the night outside said buildings, without minimal conditions of habitability, health, security, work and food. The Mexico City Reconstruction Program did not contemplate them.

Even worse, the “owners” removed them from the buildings and the government of Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo ordered the eviction of the Otomí families, an act that was consummated violently last year with more than 200 members of the “disappeared” grenadier corps.

Today on the streets, and through Diego García, an adherent to the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle, the families point out that they don’t have any way of protecting themselves from the pandemic. “To avoid contagion, the WHO [World Health Organization] and the governments recommend washing your hands, and we don’t have potable water for consumption; a safe distance, and we live crowded together and in camps; shelter at home, and we don’t have a home: we live on the street, we were evicted; quarantine, and we are unemployed, we work in the street and we live day-to-day.”

The CNI tool the threat of the pandemic seriously weeks befor the federal government launched National Safe Distance Day. The Zapatista National Liberation Army (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN) in Chiapas closed it Goon Governments Juntas and its Caracoles. It called on its ranks and support bases to prepare for the pandemic with measures applied internally.

At the national level, the CNI cancelled its assemblies that were already programmed in 10 locations throughout the country to promote the defense of territories against the megaprojects. Two of those cancelled assemblies would have been of a national and international character. The hosts would have been the indigenous communities of Campeche.

The governmental uncovering

 Finally, the previous cases are about indigenous peoples, tribes and nations organized in struggle for their rights. They will articulate an answer. A different case is that of the communities in absolute precariousness, like those of the High Montaña of Guerrero, the Rarámuris of the Sierra Tarahumara, the Chichimeca Jonaz of Guanajuato and San Luis Potosí or the Ñäñho OF THE semi-desert of Queretaro.

The governmental strategy in the La Montaña region of Guerrero is to give instructions with which it’s almost impossible to comply: constantly washing your hands, where there’s barely water to drink, and using antibacterial gel, where it isn’t even sold.

But there is no governmental action to, given the emergency, guaranty the communities access to water. Economic inequality persists, which translates into unequal access to services and information, Abel Barrera explains.

Without an effective government communications policy for the indigenous peoples, it is their own organizations that try to prevent the pandemic. The Tlachinollan Human Rights Center of La Montaña has delivered audio messages in the region’s maternal languages: Nahua, T’un Saavi and Me’phaa.

In the area, the federal and state governments have published written messages that, although they are written in indigenous languages, the majority don’t know how to read, not to mention the fact that they are oral tradition societies. There are also messages broadcast through a radio station, but they are very technical for the population and don’t generate any awareness of what is coming.

“We don’t see actions aimed at establishing a communication in accordance with the idiosyncrasy of the peoples, their languages, their culture; that minimally accessible information, not so technical, is guaranteed,” explains Abel Barrera, a human rights defender.

Contralínea requested an interview with the director of the INPI, Adelfo Regino Montes. The official, the highest authority in the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador for attention to the original peoples, declined to speak with this media outlet.

On its Internet page, the INPI only has as actions against the coronavirus in indigenous peoples the translation into 10 languages (of the 68 that are spoken in the country) of informative posters for preventing contagion. As is observed on the page, there would be no other policy for the original peoples given the pandemic.

The disease could not come to La Montaña of Guerrero at a worse time. Impoverished and with chronic malnutrition, indigenous families suffer a worsening of their economic situation. Their three sources of money collapsed in the last year, months and weeks: illegal poppy growing, remittances and government assistance.

The first of these, the sale of opium gum that is obtained from poppy cultivation. Prices fell on the international black market because US consumers of the drug now prefer fentanyl. They have exchanged this narcotic for heroin.

“Lamentably, the sale of this illicit product came to be part of the indigenous peoples’ precarious economy. And it fell apart. What the kilo of gum cost on the black market here in the region, went from 25,000 to 5,000 pesos. That came to ruin with what little that some people who dared to plant in the ravines of La Montaña were sometimes able to harvest,” explains Abel Barrera.

A second source of income is from remittances. And due to the arrival of the pandemic in the United States, a large number of migrant workers in that country have lost their jobs. Many are without any work and have therefore stopped sending money to their families. There are even reports of the return of hundreds who arrive in their communities without being subject to any medical check.

The third source of income is from government aid programs. The support was reduced with the arrival of the new government. Before, families received resources by the number of children. Now it’s the same amount for each family, regardless of the number in the family.

Abel Barrera explains that the reconfiguration of social programs the federal government carried out since the arrival of Andrés Manuel López Obrador did not benefit the mountain families. To the contrary, it resulted in a cut in resources for the region’s indigenous peoples.

And it’s that programs like Youth Building the Future or Support for Disabled Persons, which could be successful in other places, have no application in the communities of La Montaña where there is no paid work. Others that could have practical application, such as fertilizers, only arrived in the municipal capitals and in some communities, according to data from Tlachinollan.

In addition, Barrera Hernández recalls, a year of natural catastrophes –hailstorms, landslides and winds– just passed that finished off the crops of those who were able to plant.

The panorama is one of emergency. The pandemic comes to exacerbate these conditions. What could happen is “a chaos, a critical situation of unease, of protest… that cannot be controlled; that’s what worries us in a not too distant horizon, like 2 or 3 months. If the situation is already grave, it will be worse. There may be a context of greater polarization and violence.”

And it’s that from the government spheres no policy is foreseen to mitigate the damage caused specifically in the most impoverished regions. Abel Barrera points out that general formulas will not be enough. Policies must be designed specifically targeting certain regions.

They won’t let their guard down

 The CNI, for its part, rules out suspending the struggles that it’s waging. The fact that it is suspending mass meetings doesn’t mean that the demands are abandoned. “We will continue in the strategic struggles that we are leading,” Carlos González points out.

He is referring to the organization in defense of land and territory, to support for the struggle of women and to the struggle of workers. The activities will continue, but with local and regional actions when they are necessary; they will continue promoting the process of legal struggle where it is possible.

“Faced with the noisy fall of the economies of the rich and poor countries, we must insist that the path to a lasting and long-term solution is to destroy capitalism. This is precisely what is leading us to these crises. The deterioration of the Earth and nature will continue increasing if, as humanity, we don’t put a stop to this system,” considers the Nahua councilor.


Originally Published in Spanish by Contralinea

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee – Oakland


2 Comments on “Pandemic: 16 million indigenous people in absolute vulnerability

  1. Pingback: Zapatista News & Analysis | Blog of Zapatista Support Group Wellington, Aotearoa/New Zealand

  2. Pingback: Zapatista News & Analysis, May 2020 – Transnational Solidarity Network

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